Speech on the Cashless Debit Card Trial Bill


I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018. The Australian Greens oppose this bill. The Greens have opposed the cashless debit card since its inception. The bill before us today intends to establish the Hervey Bay and Bundaberg trial site and, if this bill passes, this new trial site will continue on until 30 June 2020. In this trial, the cashless debit card would only be forced on those under 36 and receiving Newstart allowance, youth allowance or parenting payment. The bill also raises the cap on the number of trial participants across the board to 15,000. The bill also introduces provisions that allow merchants to block restricted goods at the point of sale, and expands the list of restricted products to include a cash-like product that could be used to obtain alcoholic beverages or for gambling.

The Greens have been opposed to this type of punitive legislation from the very beginning, because this is entirely about penalising and demonising people on welfare. Let's be clear: this is a particular attack on young people—young people who are already suffering from the policies of this government, because there is a real lack of employment and a real lack of opportunity and there is the increasing cost of living. And, as my colleague Senator Rice pointed out, there is a real lack of services, no matter what area you look into.

We know that there is no evidence that this is even an effective scheme. The Ceduna and East Kimberley trial sites were examined by the Australian National Audit Office, and it is crystal clear there is no effective impact evaluation. The report said it was 'difficult to conclude' whether there had been a reduction in social harm such as alcoholism and violence, because 'there was a lack of robustness in the data collection'. The same goes for these expanded trial sites.

But, amid the concerns about the trials and the scope of the process, the lack of evidence and the lack of data, we should not forget the terrible human impacts this kind of social policy has. Let me just share the words of a domestic violence survivor who was part of the cashless debit card trial. She said she would not have been able to escape her abusive marriage under this shameful scheme. This is the story of Jocelyn Wighton, from Ceduna, South Australia. We know that Ceduna is a remote town and has a cash based economy, and many household items are bought in second-hand shops, which do not always have the facilities for this card. Jocelyn said:

If I was on this card when I escaped from my husband, I would not have made it. I bought secondhand furniture down to the plates and knives and forks. You can't do that on the card.

This is what the cashless card does to people. It causes real people real harm.

The ABC also reported on the shame and stigma caused by the card in Western Australia, and I quote from that report:

Ms Asusaar is a single mother, and her family's income is reliant on Centrelink payments for her son's disability as well as for her role as his carer.

This year, she was enrolled in the latest trial of the cashless welfare card in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

She said:

We've had people who try to [put] stickers over part of the card, literally hiding it up their sleeve.

The article continues:

Sam Harding, a Kalgoorlie resident who receives the disability support pension, said she had endured multiple incidents of abuse in public associated with her card.

"I was doing some shopping and a transaction went through incorrectly … I think [the cashier] made about 10 to 15 attempts but it didn't work," Ms Harding said.

"People just started saying 'oh that's one of those … card people' … by the time I was ready to leave, I was in tears.

This is the real impact on the real people living in these towns and in communities. So I ask the Senate: is this really what we want to be forcing onto already vulnerable people, people who already don't have the services that everyone in Australia deserves?

When these deeply flawed trials were being developed in 2017 and again this year, my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert worked tirelessly in committees to prevent this gross violation of human rights from proceeding, and I really, deeply thank her for her work and wish to draw the chamber's attention to some key points the Greens made in our dissenting report on one of those committees. This is what we said then, and this is absolutely relevant now:

The Australian Greens reject the committee view … that extensive consultation was undertaken … The evidence presented to the committee showed that the consultation process was flawed. The Government's … consultation with the community members who would be subject to the card was almost non-existent and showed a fundamental lack of respect for people receiving income support.

We said:

Unlike the view expressed in the majority report the Australian Greens are deeply concerned that this bill limits human rights. As outlined in many submissions to the inquiry the circumstances in the trial site are not so extreme or exceptional as to warrant an approach that infringes on the human rights of income support recipients and the Australian Greens reject the committee view that this approach is warranted and legitimate.

Our dissenting report also said:

The Australian Greens oppose Compulsory Income Management. It is a failed measure as can be seen in the final evaluation of the NT Intervention.

To not have learnt from this sorry chapter in our history is also pretty saddening—a chapter that enjoyed bipartisan support and whose impacts are still being felt in those communities. As we said:

Compulsory Income Management impacts negatively on individuals and the community and imposes significant costs on Government.

Evidence that was provided through submissions and through hearings to this inquiry did show the fundamental and very deep flaws in this approach. We all know that income management has proved to be a completely ineffective policy that totally disempowers and harms those that need our help the most. As we said:

Submissions to the inquiry by peak social service bodies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations from across Australia expressed deep and fundamental concerns with Compulsory Income Management.

… Despite the history of its imposition, there is no clear evidence that compulsory income management works, or improves the lives of those it affects.

There have been and still are vocal and consistent concerns raised by those who will be subjected to this card in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area. A number of submissions were received from individuals who will be subjected to the card if this bill passes, and a number of these individuals also provided evidence at the hearings for the inquiry. I'm really concerned that their views have not been heard through those consultations, and they're definitely not reflected in the bill that we are debating today. Accordingly, Senator Siewert again highlighted some of their concerns, which I am going to talk about below.

Say No to the Cashless Welfare Card Australia/No Cashless Debit Card Hinkler Region group was concerned, among other things, about the lack of public consultation from the local member and the costs associated with the card, both monetary costs and costs for those subjected to the trial. They said in their submission:

The stigma attached to the card through the constant demonising of the people on social security, the media "welfare bashing" has already changed our local community language and the way people on social security are being treated.

They continue on to say:

This card will further divide our community, excluding so many people in so many ways, from community events, school events, charity events, cash economy, secondhand economy, but also the banking economy.

…   …   …

Just like the people on the card in other regions, our residents do not deserve to be treated as a sub class citizen with their human rights removed, their freedom removed, their ability to travel, decided for them …

Let's not forget that these are communities, as I said earlier, and these are people who are already suffering because they don't have the services; we haven't provided them with the services. I've lived on the Mid North Coast for many years. That is where my children grew up. I did see the impact of the lack of services that are available in regional areas, and it is much more so in the areas we are actually talking about.

The Department of Social Services, in the Auditor-General's report Implementation and performance of the cashless debit card trial, concluded a number of points that I would also like to highlight today to this chamber. The conclusion of that report says:

The Department of Social Services largely established appropriate arrangements to implement the Cashless Debit Card Trial, however, its approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate. As a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach.

Why would we keep pushing a policy that has been seen to have been a complete failure?

Social Services established appropriate arrangements for consultation, communicating with communities and for governance of the implementation of CDCT. … However, it did not actively monitor risks identified in risk plans and there were deficiencies in elements of the procurement processes.

The conclusion of the report goes on to say:

Arrangements to monitor and evaluate the trial were in place although key activities were not undertaken or fully effective, and the level of unrestricted cash available in the community was not effectively monitored. Social Services established relevant and mostly reliable key performance indicators, but they did not cover some operational aspects of the trial such as efficiency, including cost. There was a lack of robustness in data collection and the department's evaluation did not make use of all available administrative data to measure the impact of the trial including any change in social harm. Aspects of the proposed wider roll-out of the CDC were informed by learnings from the trial, but the trial was not designed to test the scalability of the CDC—

And here we are, increasing the number of people by the thousands. I just cannot understand how this policy should pass this chamber, should become concrete, when there are so many missing gaps and so many flaws that have been highlighted again and again by so many different groups.

Locals who will be subjected to this trial want to see the money spent more usefully. They want to see the money that would be spent on the trial go on to fund services such as for homelessness, for domestic violence shelters, for education pathways and for creating jobs for local young people. That's how we will get a vibrant economy that actually does work for everyone. That is the kind of social policy that we should be pursuing, not this disgusting, patronising and violating policy from the coalition.

And it is not just the citizens and the Greens who have concerns. A long list of expert submissions have opposed this bill and continue to oppose this bill. Since the last inquiry into the cashless debit card the Australian National Audit Office, or ANAO, has released its report The implementation and performance of the cashless debit card trial. And in its submission to the inquiry the Accountable Income Management Network gives a really blistering assessment that I think some opposite would benefit from hearing, if you haven't heard it already. The ANAO report on the CDC has explicitly condemned both ORIMA's evaluation process and its final report. The ANAO undertook an audit of the CDC trials to identify whether the Department of Social Services was appropriately informed and positioned to justify a further rollout of the CDC. The ANAO's report concluded that the department's approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate, as I said earlier. This report highlighted the same risks and the same issues that all the other reports have highlighted before.

So, how can the coalition go ahead with such a policy, which has the support of literally no-one and which is going to be harmful for the most vulnerable of people and which does not actually set up and use the massive amounts of wealth that we have in Australia to help and support people and get them out of poverty? This legislation is no good for anyone. The Greens vehemently oppose this bill.